‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ Finds New Magic and Dark Riches in a Classic Story

The best children’s fables have a hint of the macabre to them. A sense of adventure combines with lightly unnerving lessons about the real world, some of which we only realize when revisiting the story in hindsight as adults. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” taps into that special aspect of a good fairy tale by reimagining the eternally famous story of the wooden boy brought to life with richer insights, dazzling visual ingenuity and preservation of its most cherished features. The title is wholly appropriate because this is the master director’s own fresh take on Carlo Collodi’s book, first published in the 19th century but here reimagined as a parable about the dark heart of the 20th. This is also del Toro’s first fully animated movie, done in stop-motion so absorbingly that its world is truly alive.

Something about the legacy of the last century’s defining conflicts haunts the work of Guillermo del Toro. Earlier, brilliant films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” were fantasies set amid the rise of fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Now the Mexican auteur turns the lens to rural Italy, where amid pastoral landscapes we meet the woodworker Geppetto (David Bradley), who loses his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) during World War I. The years pass and in his anguish, Geppetto decides to carve a new boy out of wood. This happens just as a traveler arrives in town. It is the sophisticated Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a blue cricket who has traveled the world, had many adventures and wants to settle down in a tree’s interior to compose his memoirs. His first choice of home happens to be the tree Geppetto cuts down to make Pinocchio. Night arrives with the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), a new take on the Blue Fairy, who grants Pinocchio (Bradley) life. She tasks Cricket with being his conscience. But come morning, Geppetto is more mortified than excited, especially since Pinocchio is a wild child who refuses to follow set rules, something made even more dangerous by the observant local fascists loyal to Benito Mussolini. 

By making “Pinocchio” a stop-motion animation, del Toro creates a fantasy that feels both dreamlike and stark. Maybe it won’t do justice to just label this a “family film,” because its themes and sense of pathos are very adult. Yet that’s also why a younger viewer would benefit much from it. Del Toro’s screenplay with Mark Gustafson uses the topic of fascist Italy during World War II as a riveting parable about authority. Geppetto is no longer the saintly, worried father of the Disney movies, but a hurt older man who drinks too much, feels bitterness and chastises Pinocchio for not being as well-behaved as the late Carlo. Simply having a walking talking wooden child doesn’t take away the pain of having lost his son in the Great War. Pinocchio is then written as a genuine kid who doesn’t want to be told what to do. He can be a bit of a brat but with an endearing innocence. It’s the adults who lack any sense of innocence because life and the changing social climate are turning them into monsters. A local government enforcer, Podesta (Ron Perlman), greets everyone with the fascist salute. He doesn’t judge Pinocchio but instead sees a potential super soldier. His own son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), responds to Pinocchio’s kindness because he has none in a militarized home. Cricket is a flawed conscience who has to get over his own pretentiousness, and later gives one of the film’s best speeches about how all we can do in life is our best. 

The drama is rich but del Toro is still making a lively adventure full of great sights. His animated creations are as finely detailed and astoundingly complex as any of the visual effects that have made his movies legendary. Pinocchio is designed with great realism, with a head and body showing the traces and leftovers of the tree he’s been formed from. Small details are wondrous or create an enveloping environment. In the corner of the screen we can catch a sleeping dog as Pinocchio cheerfully walks down the street to school, passing by a dystopian portrait of Mussolini. There are lush vistas but also a sense of grit and grime. When he joins the carnival of the perversely greedy Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), the stage and puppets are as twisted as del Toro’s remake last year of “Nightmare Alley.” Volpe’s sidekick is a baboon blind in one eye, Spazzatura (voiced believe it or not by Cate Blanchett). Del Toro colors Pinocchio’s journey with his own critiques of power. A puppet dance number is fascist propaganda and Il Duce himself, hilariously designed as a small tyrant with a big head riding an absurdly long limousine, visits the show. Del Toro’s vision has more in common with films like Jan Švankmajer’s “Alice” than Disney.

Just when we think we know this story by heart and where it is going, del Toro takes new turns with the narrative that transforms it into a profound meditation on time’s passing. In this version, Pinocchio’s experiences aren’t necessarily about eventually turning into a real boy. He must learn what love entails in its purest essence, including self-sacrifice. He will face Death (Swinton), who explains the rules of his condition, which can mean facing mortality if he decides to become real. That classic showdown at sea with an aquatic sea beast is quite funny through del Toro’s lens, as he also combines it with raw emotion. Pinocchio, Geppetto and Cricket truly face death when they try to escape after spending time (including fishing) in the beast’s belly. Del Toro doesn’t just make the scene thrilling. He makes it about the experience of almost losing someone in a cataclysmic situation. It’s the same with the famous scene where Pinocchio in an island of pleasures sees the other misbehaving boys turn into donkeys. In Del Toro’s version, it’s a fascist training camp where boys are trained for the war, because the adults are the mad ones.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is one of those special films where each visit will reveal new treasures hidden in its frames. It’s that well-detailed and involving. Having explored love, death and war before in movies of grandiosity and terror, del Toro has now made an animated film that in many moments, comes close to surpassing his great live-action work in terms of emotional power. He understands that Pinocchio isn’t at heart about a “cute” wooden boy wanting to be real. The real subtext is about wanting something and not being prepared for how it may arrive, then learning to genuinely care even while overcoming great pain. You can then revisit this movie just to enjoy how it was made. Netflix has recently been entering an uncertain zone where giving renowned director’s limitless resources have produced unbalanced results. What makes this director different is how one senses the real joy in being able to tell good stories he’s been carrying around for a while. Del Toro has not just adapted a children’s story that most of us know, he has made it his own and in the process delivered a wonderful film.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” begins streaming Dec. 9 on Netflix.